Unemployed tap their 401(k)s

Almost half of all workers who left their job last year took a cash distribution from their plan, according to a new study.

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Nearly half of U.S. workers who left their job last year cashed out their 401(k) accounts, according to a study released Wednesday, despite ongoing efforts to dissuade Americans from doing so.

Hewitt Associates, a global human resources consulting firm, said 46% of employees who left their job last year took a cash distribution from their 401(k) plan.

The "alarmingly high" number, which was based on a study of 170,000 401(k) participants, has remained virtually unchanged since 2005, the group said.

Pamela Hess, Hewitt's director of retirement research, said employers and policymakers need to work together to change employee behaviors and reduce 401(k) cash-out rates.

"Otherwise, millions of Americans who rely on defined contribution plans will find themselves unable to achieve a financially secure retirement," Hess said in a statement.

While cashing in a 401(k) can make sense for some workers, most financial advisers say breaking your nest egg before retirement is a bad idea because of the penalties involved and the loss of potential interest.

"Over the course of 20 or 30 years, modest amounts of savings can turn into surprisingly large sums of money," Hess said.

Among the workers who did not cash out their plans, 29% left their savings in their prior employer's 401(k) plan, while 25% rolled over their money into an IRA account or other retirement plan.

The study also showed that younger workers were more likely to take the money and run. Six out of ten workers in their 20s took a cash distribution from their 401(k) last year, compared with just one-third of employees in their 50s.

Hess said the high cash-out rate among young workers is troublesome because those employees are missing out on "decades-worth of tax-deferred growth on their investments."

Not surprisingly, the study found a correlation between 401(k) plan balances and cash-out rates.

Only 8% of workers with 401(k) balances of $100,000 or more cashed out their plans last year. That compares with 85% of workers with a balance of $1,000 or less who did take a cash distribution.  To top of page

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